Organizing in a Time of Crisis & Opportunity: Reflections on Six Years of Reinvention, Growth, and Impact at MoveOn
We’ve been privileged to serve as MoveOn’s executive directors for the last six years, leading and winning hard-fought campaigns to advance a progressive vision for our country from Obama’s second term through the acute crises of Trump.
Later this year, with gratitude, pride, and immense confidence in what lies ahead for this essential organization, the two of us will be transitioning out of our roles as MoveOn’s co-directors. We’ll be running an open search for the next director, and we’ll support, train, and cheerlead them when they’re in place.
We wanted to pause as we undertake this transition to reflect on some of the ways in which we’ve fundamentally rebuilt and grown MoveOn to meet the challenges of this era. Our hope is that these reflections can be useful to our fellow organizers — especially the leaders, staff, and members of progressive movement organizations working to rise to the profound challenges and opportunities of this moment.
We’re acutely conscious of the daily horrors visible in the news cycle, and the deeper tragedies that the news cycle obscures. But that’s all the more reason to learn from and celebrate places where progressives have built strength and had a profound impact. MoveOn is one of them. MoveOn today is stronger, bigger, and more powerful than we’ve ever been in our history. In the six years that we’ve led MoveOn, we’ve quadrupled the budget and base of monthly donors and tripled the size of our core staff team. We’ve built an engaged membership of millions that reaches into every county in the country. And MoveOn’s national visibility and political clout have exploded.
Entering 2019, MoveOn members are a powerful force in the Resistance and broader movements that are transforming our country — not simply content to counter the radical right, but fundamentally reimagining what’s possible for racial, economic, and social justice.
We came to MoveOn to organize and mobilize, and, centrally, to run campaigns to build a country where everyone can thrive — a project that didn’t start with Trump’s election, and won’t end when he leaves 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
We also came here to innovate. Using the tech, analytics, and organizing tools and access to the fantastic membership that MoveOn so uniquely provides, we sought to foster breakthroughs that could unlock new tactics to help win elections and build durable governing power.
And we came here to nurture the talents and capacities of a brilliant staff team — to build the culture of a powerful and inclusive movement organization that could model excellence inside and out.
We couldn’t be more proud of what we’ve achieved on all of those levels — campaigning, innovation, and our organization — together with a dream team of MoveOn staff and volunteers — insightful, passionate, effective activists bending history towards justice time and again, and building the leaderful organizational culture that will help MoveOn thrive through and after this transition.
Here’s a bit more texture on our campaigns, innovation, and organization-building work as we reflect on these six years.
As a multi-issue, often rapid-response organization, we’ve mobilized our millions of members time and time again, often at inflection-point moments — blocking dire threats and opening up new possibilities.
And as our election program has grown bigger and more sophisticated, we’ve flexed our community’s power at the ballot box.
Some highlights of our strategic campaigning in this period:
We helped power a massive wave election in 2018.
We moved hundreds of thousands of votes for MoveOn-endorsed Democrats through our massive Resist and Win election program combining training and field mobilization, video persuasion, SMS contact, and narrative campaigning.
We threw our muscle behind over 100 House candidates and another 100 down-ballot champions; raised over $4 million directly for endorsed candidates (including over $1 million for Black women candidates); and provided support at key junctures for some of the most inspiring champions to emerge from the election cycle, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Stacey Abrams, and Ilhan Omar.
We fought for health care — and won.
Our Medicaid expansion campaign, beginning in 2014, increased pressure on state legislatures and, in one memorable case, got us sued by the state of Louisiana for billboards that hit a bit too close to home. We helped Medicaid expand in 37 states and counting. When repealing Obamacare and gutting Medicaid became the GOP’s #1 priority after 2016, we ran a marathon campaign to save health care that was victorious against the odds, helping save access to health care for tens of millions of people. MoveOn members generated a stunning one million phone calls for health care in 2017. Hundreds of thousands more attended town hall meetings, shared videos and personal stories online, and organized protests at their local Congressional offices. When John McCain, Lisa Murkowski, and Susan Collins famously cast their midnight votes to defeat repeal, it was a MoveOn-organized rally outside that celebrated the news, creating images beamed into millions of homes via cable news.
We won major victories for diplomacy.
MoveOn members provided the grassroots muscle needed to defend Obama’s breakthrough diplomatic agreement with Iran when congressional Republicans (and some wavering Democrats) threatened it in 2015 — showing up in district, in Washington, on the phones and online, threatening a donor strike if Democrats defected, and running ads to support the deal. Later, with partners, we helped force the cancellation of Obama’s NSEERS registry in December 2016, which could have been abused to surveil and target Muslims under Trump. And, while diplomacy (including the Iran deal) have taken a beating under Trump, we’ve persisted — and our member pressure helped create the conditions for the first vote to end the US role in the Yemen War in December 2018.
We’ve prioritized immigrant and refugee rights.
In 2015, during a dangerous, Trump-fueled upswing in anti-refugee sentiment, we threw our weight into a strategic campaign saying “America Welcomes” — from online actions to specially-themed Thanksgiving dinners welcoming Syrian and other refugees — and helped to stop a congressional effort to block Syrian refugees from entering the US. When Trump repealed DACA, we launched into an 8-month campaign to pass a clean DREAM Act, bringing our non-immigrant members into solidarity alongside organizations like United We Dream. While we didn’t help pass the DREAM Act, we ensured that GOP proposals to slash legal immigration were nonstarters. And perhaps most powerfully, we stepped into a leading role at a pivot point in the fight against Trump’s horrific family separation policy — calling for and organizing national rallies in June 2018 that produced the iconic Families Belong Together mass mobilization, with hundreds of thousands of Americans of all backgrounds marching for immigrant families, from major cities to the tiniest red hamlets — helping force the Administration to change course and helping shift the national narrative. As the New York Times wrote that day, “The marches taking place across the country this weekend are really about the soul of America.”
We have organized to defend our democracy itself.
Most dramatically, the “Nobody is Above the Law” rapid response network defending Mueller’s investigation into Trump and his associates’ crimes, co-conceived and maintained by MoveOn and multiple partners, prepared a network of more than 1000 hosts in communities nationwide, ready to spring into action in case the Mueller investigation was threatened. This served as a deterrent through the various twists and turns of the beginning of the Trump Administration. When Jeff Sessions was fired and a Trump loyalist installed in his place to oversee Mueller’s work, the network deployed for the first time — and over 100,000 people marched just two days after the 2018 midterms.
We’ve worked to un-rig the system and stave off Trump.
We’ve sounded the alarm over the billionaires and giant corporations rigging the rules of our democracy for their own enrichment — and the crisis of widening, and racialized, economic inequality. As the 2016 Democratic primary took shape, we threw our weight into an effort to recruit Elizabeth Warren to run, elevating her agenda and platform and showcasing the hunger for progressive economic populist policies in the Democratic Party; and then were one of the few national organizations to endorse Bernie Sanders, following our members’ passion for his strong message. We were also one of the few organizational voices that took seriously the risk of a Trump presidency, and sounded the alarm that he could win. We unequivocally threw our weight into trying to help Hillary win in the 2016 general election, urging progressives to unite around her candidacy and running a multi-million dollar field organizing program to help them do just that.
We have helped mount grassroots pressure for gun control time and again over these years.
After the slaughter of children in Newtown, we mounted substantial pressure on Congress — holding national vigils and sustaining months of pressure for a background checks bill that ultimately narrowly failed, as well as supporting state-level efforts for reform. In 2015, we organized tens of thousands of responsible gun owners, bringing a delegation of them to Washington, and helping to puncture the NRA’s myth that it spoke for all gun owners. When President Obama ultimately signed an executive order introducing some gun regulation in 2015, MoveOn members were on stage behind him. In 2018, after the Parkland massacre, we elevated and supported the courageous organizing of young people — both the Parkland students and also young people of color who’d been organizing in local communities for years without the national spotlight.
We’ve fought for racial justice.
Our megaphone and rapid-response campaigning helped force down the Confederate flag in South Carolina in 2015, building on the leadership of long-term civil rights groups and activists. We added to the outcry over the murder of Trayvon Martin and, with breakout petitions, rapid response campaigns, partnerships with other groups, and more, supported the crucial work of the Movement for Black Lives. We made and distributed dozens of powerful original videos unpacking the doctrine of white supremacy and the toxic and lasting effects of anti-Black racism — and we held politicians in the Democratic Party accountable alongside Republicans.
We’ve moved millions of dollars directly to relief efforts and our broader movement.
Even as we’ve worked to address the root causes of suffering and injustice, we’ve pointed resources towards urgent relief efforts in times of crisis. We’ve raised millions of dollars to direct relief efforts — including over $4 million for Hurricane Maria victims in 2017 (in a partnership with Lin-Manuel Miranda), $500,000 for the victims of the Camp Fire in California in 2018, $200,000 for earthquake victims in Nepal and $220,000 to support Syrian refugees in 2015, and hundreds of thousands of dollars for children separated from their families at the US-Mexico border over several years. Along the way, we’ve provided millions of dollars in quiet support for a range of partner organizations doing essential organizing and campaigning that advanced our members’ priorities.
There’s much more — from protesting the GOP’s shocking Supreme Court power grabs (including nationalizing protests against Kavanaugh), to supporting campaigns for climate justice. One of the great privileges of working at MoveOn has been the ability to organize on such a wide range of issues — and have real impact, together, across all of them.
We’ve geeked out on finding, supporting, and iterating on organizing innovations in our time leading MoveOn. We’ve asked ourselves: How do you support and amplify a networked, synergistic social movement in the digital age? How do you lift out the brilliance of all these people all around the country into something bigger than one group with a megaphone?
More fundamentally, how do we build power for our ideals? How do we reinvent this rusted, creaking democracy as it’s coming under such direct attack from people who wish to enrich themselves at everyone else’s expense?
Asking these questions, we’ve built MoveOn as a multi-channel campaigns organization, centered in our members, with a powerful spirit of innovation.
Some of the projects we’ve fostered have included:
In 2016, we launched an in-house video program to create and distribute videos to our members, and to a broader progressive audience that we believed we could engage. Less than three years later, we’re closing in on half a BILLION views of MoveOn video content, distributed unpaid, primarily through Facebook’s ecosystem — but on other platforms as well. At this scale, we’ve become something of a de facto media channel, capable of moving messages, arguments, and facts out to a mass audience. (The video below of Elizabeth Warren calling Trump out on taxes, for example, has been viewed 38 million times!)
We’ve grown from zero to over a million SMS subscribers who are reached every week with alerts from MoveOn staff. We run a fully featured SMS program now — a broadcast program that recruits event participants, spreads videos and petitions, raises funds, and more; and a peer-to-peer program that managed over 1,000 dedicated volunteers in the 2018 election cycle and can turn on a dime to distribute calls to action. SMS action-takers now routinely accounts for over half of the volume in any given campaign.
We launched an expanded open petition platform in 2013 — empowering tens of thousands of MoveOn members to run their own campaigns and reach other MoveOn members in their community. Our petition platform powered the first breakout petition on student loan debt, and the biggest petition decrying Trayvon Martin’s killing. Hundreds of organizations have built their digital capacity and reach, for free, on top of MoveOn’s platform — and members have run campaigns on every issue under the sun, from environmental to civil rights issues and beyond. (And some have had fun with it.)
Real Voter Voices.
We combined our strength in data, tech, and analytics with our earnest belief in authentic grassroots voices for a signature breakout in the 2018 election cycle: a video persuasion program that collected over 2,000 genuine voter videos, identified audiences that would be compelled by them, and ran ads to make sure the right voices would be heard by the voters that needed to hear them. This program made us the biggest buyer of Facebook ads in the last few weeks leading up to Election Day — and helped move hundreds of thousands of votes for Democrats.
Spoke: Open-source peer-to-peer SMS messaging.
Our incredible Tech Team took over an open-source, peer-to-peer SMS program that was developed by volunteers in the 2016 election, and built it into a robust platform that we used to send tens of millions of texts for our 2018 program. They’ve also offered it to a broader movement, and it’s now used by dozens of partner groups that couldn’t afford commercial solutions.
MoveOn has an inspiring, audacious history that now dates back 20 years(!). We have benefited every day from the phenomenal staff and board members who predated us — especially the work they did to wire nimbleness, independence, rigor, and ambition into our DNA.
In our tenure, we’ve worked to stay true to those attributes, while also needing to fundamentally rebuild MoveOn to meet the new technological, movement, and political challenges of our moment.
Some data points on our organizational development and growth work include:
- When we started as EDs in 2013, MoveOn had an annual budget of $7.5 million across entities. In 2018, it was $32 million.
- We began our tenure with a staff of 22 across entities. MoveOn had 100 staff at the peak of our 2018 election surge, and entered 2019 with 63 core staff.
- In 2013, MoveOn had roughly 20,000 recurring monthly donors. In 2019, after years of tenacious focus and work, we have more than 80,000 committed recurring donors — alongside hundreds of thousands more donors who give one-time gifts each year.
- We’ve grown substantially more complex as we’ve diversified the channels by which we communicate with members, and the scope and ambition of the programs we’re running. In 2013, we had five staff teams. In 2019, we have 13.
- We brought our technology and operation teams fully “in-house,” with robust teams now running each of those realms.
- We’ve launched MoveOn Education Fund, our new affiliated c3, with the goal of deepening MoveOn’s education and capacity-building efforts, as well as ensuring MoveOn’s ability to remain steadfast around more longer-haul campaigns.
- We’ve grown our campaigning beyond email, such that today we are a genuinely multi-channel campaigning organization — while continuing to cultivate millions of engaged email members. We’ve launched a membership growth initiative with explicit attention to identity of our members.
- We’ve deepened MoveOn’s commitment to racial, gender, and other forms of equity, including through internal work like trainings, working groups, retreats, caucuses; and we have run some of MoveOn’s first explicit, long-term racial justice campaigns. We’ve also led the first work in MoveOn’s history to understand the complex identity of our membership.
To enable all this growth and added complexity, we’ve worked to develop culture, structures, and processes to best support our incredible team.
MoveOn’s staff and alumni are, quite simply, breathtaking — the best collection of organizers, technologists, analysts, campaigners, and operations professionals you’ll find anywhere in the world. There is warmth, brilliance, commitment, and soul in every direction when we look around our virtual office.
We’ve worked to take care of this incredible team, to lean into the huge amounts of leadership potential that’s everywhere on staff, and to create an organizational culture that encourages people to bring their authentic selves to work.
We did a lot that we’re proud of in that spirit. We’ve had extremely low attrition in the last few years, and internal discussions have surfaced a lot that people are proud of and think is going well. Of course, we have strong self-critiques and missed opportunities as well — but we’re deeply proud of the spirit we feel within the team, the kind of people we’ve attracted to work (and stay) with us, and the team’s consistently high level of performance.
All the work above is dependent on the members. The MoveOn community is a beacon of hope. We are millions of people, connected by our shared values, by our fury at those who would pillage and rig and pit us against each other for their own gain — and by our yearning for this country to live into its potential for decency, dignity, justice, love.
This community is united by the willingness to not just sign petitions but also show up in the rain and snow and wind to do the right thing — for the safety and dignity and futures of our own families but also for our collective future.
This web of decency and of mutual care is precious gold, and MoveOn members are why we’ve stayed here for so long. The chance to serve this community, this national body of determined and vigilant watchdogs for peace, justice, and democracy, is a once-in-a-lifetime gift.
From our first events as MoveOn volunteer members in opposition to the Iraq War, to Election Day 2018, to now — we’re awed and inspired by the way that millions of people have stepped up and used whatever tools and spaces we could help provide, and beyond determined to keep the critical work moving.
We’re both so grateful to have had the opportunity to serve here, and energized for the work ahead. We’re fully committed to run excellent search and transition processes, and we’ll stay in to help our successor or successors not just land on their feet but get off to a good sprint.
And we’ll be MoveOn members for life.
Thanks for reading. Thanks for supporting us and MoveOn in a million ways along this incredible journey, and for what you’ll do to support MoveOn in the years ahead.
As we say so often — thanks for all you do.
Anna & Ilya